Traces of Vermeer by Jane Jelley - review by Laura Freeman

Laura Freeman

He Made Masterpieces with Manure

Traces of Vermeer


Oxford University Press 339pp £25 order from our bookshop

On the acknowledgements page of Traces of Vermeer, Jane Jelley thanks one friend who tracked down pig bladders and another who harvested mussel shells from a freshwater moat. Jelley, a painter, takes her research on the Dutch Golden Age painter Johannes Vermeer (1632–75) out of galleries and archives and into the studio. Her experiments are two parts Professor Branestawm, one part Great British Bake Off. She discovers that she can make yellow ‘lakes’ – pigments produced from dyes of the kind used by Vermeer and his contemporaries to create subtle ‘glazed’ effects – in her kitchen at home. First, you collect some unripe buckthorn berries from a hedgerow or the flowers of the broom shrub. Next, ‘You have to boil up the plants; and then you need some chalk, some alum; some coffee filters; and a large turkey baster.’ She reminds us how fortunate modern artists are to be able to buy their paint in ready-mixed tubes from Winsor & Newton.

Before he laid down even a dot of paint, Vermeer would have weighed, ground, burned, sifted, heated, cooled, kneaded, washed, filtered, dried and oiled his colours. Some pigments – the rare ultramarine blue made from lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, for example – had to be plunged into cold vinegar. Others – such as lead white – needed to be kept in a hut filled with horse manure. The fumes caused the lead to corrode, creating flakes of white carbonate that were scraped off by hand.

Vermeer knew how to soak old leather gloves to extract ‘gluesize’, applied as a coating to artists’ canvas. Or he might have followed the recipe for goat glue in Cennino Cennini’s painters’ manual The Craftsman’s Handbook: boiled clippings of goat muzzles, feet, sinews and skin. This was best made in January or March, in ‘great cold or high winds’, to disperse the goaty smell.

An artist had to be a chemist – and he had to have a strong stomach. He would have known, writes Jelley, ‘the useful qualities of wine, ash, urine, and saliva’. ‘Do not lick your brush or spatter your mouth with paint,’ warned Cennini. Lead white and arsenic yellow were poisonous, goat glue merely unpleasant. The art historian Jan Veth, writing in 1908 about Girl with a Pearl Earring (c 1665–7), fancied that Vermeer had painted with ‘the dust of crushed pearl’. Forensics have since revealed the earthier truth.

If Vermeer had been more successful he would have hired an apprentice to labour over the muller, grinding fragments of ivory until his shoulders ached. Vermeer, though, suffered as a result of the market crash of 1672, which ruined his picture-dealing business. He died, bankrupt, in December 1675. Other than that, we know very little about him. Only thirty-five of his paintings survive. ‘There are no famous quotes,’ writes Jelley, ‘no anecdotes, no reminiscences; there are no diaries and no letters; not even any drawings by him remaining. We have only a few words about him in a poem; some throwaway comments recorded by passing travellers; and some dry notes in official ledgers.’

This is not another speculative Vermeer biography, a fill-in-the-gaps, guesswork life. This is Vermeer the painter, by a painter. ‘Vermeer’s canvases and panels have been scrutinised from every angle to find out more about their construction,’ writes Jelley, ‘they have been subject to spectroscopy and autoradiography; they have been looked at under high magnification and infrared reflectography … and although they may show what pigments and oils are present, they cannot explain why they are there, or how they were applied.’ Jelley is an admirable explainer.

Many art history books describe paints being stored in pig’s bladders; only Jelley gets hold of such a bladder, washes it, stretches it, pickles it, fills it with paint and strings it up by a window (there are excellent, gory photos). Who knew that the bladders are stained and tinted by whatever colour they contain, or that they tend to burst? Jelley measures pigments into mussel shells, recommended by the old painting manuals because, unlike wooden or clay containers, they do not contaminate the colour.

Her eye is excellent. She spots small, overlooked details: the grooves on the crossbars of an easel that show where an artist has rested his feet; the thin, overlaid glazes, almost violet in colour, on the outer sleeve of the dress worn by the subject of Vermeer’s Milkmaid (c 1657); the ‘split ends’ of a hog-hair paintbrush that make broader, more abstract brushstrokes. Jelley’s meticulous approach yields fascinating insights; having had her explain oil paint to us, you’d like to let her loose on illuminated manuscripts, frescoes and watercolours.

Sometimes, though, she gets carried away with a bad case of the Tracy Chevaliers: ‘Maybe about twenty minutes passes before Vermeer utters a word. Then the girl lets out her breath with a sigh. It was an age since she was left alone, as if spot-lit on a stage; not daring to move.’ This is a bit heaving-corset, and it adds little to our understanding of Young Woman with a Water Jug (c 1662).

Her final flourish is a theory that, if correct, is thrilling. In the reflective, convex face of the water jug, Jelley identifies a shimmering, mirage-like figure. We have no surviving self-portrait of Vermeer, but could this be him, tiny and wearing a blue shirt? Think of the mirrors used to similar effect in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Squint at the close-up detail reproduced on the page and you can almost see a man. It’s a tantalising thought.

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